Historian’s new translation reveals dramatic period of ancient Greece

statue of Demosthenes

In ancient Athens, Demosthenes was the only politician to draft speeches before delivering them to the public assembly of citizens. Most orators spoke off-the-cuff when addressing this decision-making body in Greece’s most powerful city state – and earliest democracy – and left no record.

So Demosthenes’ drafts, originally inked on papyrus, have served as a rare window on political life in Athens in the fourth Demosthenes Speeches 1-17 Covercentury BC.

Jeremy Trevett, a York history professor who specializes in fourth century BC Greece, has spent the last 10 years translating 17 of Demosthenes’ political speeches for the University of Texas Press series, The Oratory of Classical Greece.

The 14th of 15 volumes in the series, Demosthenes, Speeches 1-17 was published in December. In these speeches, delivered between 353 and 341 BC, Demosthenes warns the Athenian assembly of the military threat of an aggressive Philip II of Macedon, father of Alexander. They reveal mounting tension over a foreign threat and “are the only political speeches we have in the entire history of ancient Athens,” says Trevett.

The Oratory of Classical Greece series retranslates the more than 150 surviving speeches from the late fifth and fourth centuries BC – 61 of which were written by Demosthenes. The speeches, written mainly for the Athenian courts and assembly, address political issues, financial and inheritance disputes, petty quarrels, homicide and more. Until recently, they were accessible in English in dated translations.

“The way to do ancient history is to read original sources,” says Trevett, who coordinates the Classical Studies Program at York.

The series aims to make the speeches, translated by leading classical scholars, more appealing to today’s undergraduates, Greekless scholars in other disciplines and the general public, writes series editor Michael Gagarin, a classics professor at the University of Texas.

The fourth century BC “was a period of high drama in Athens,” says Trevett. Demosthenes’ warnings proved to be prophetic. In 338 BC, Philip of Macedon did defeat the Athenian alliance with other Greek cities. “I’m not sure our modern democracy owes much to the ancient Greeks, but it is interesting to see how a different democracy faced difficult challenges.”

The Oxford University-educated Trevett accepted the invitation to translate Demosthenes’ 17 speeches to the Athenian assembly shortly after he joined York’s History Department in 1997. Though he has studied ancient Greek and Latin from a young age, Trevett has never translated professionally before.

“It was more of a challenge than I imagined,” said the historian about translating several hundred pages of ancient Greek. “In any translation there’s always a tension between translating literally and translating fluently. I’m hopeful I managed to do both.”

This project could lead to two more, says Trevett. In addition to translating, he wrote brief historical commentaries on the speeches. “This could be a good stepping stone to a much needed set of detailed commentaries on Demosthenes’ speeches,” he says. Trevett also notes that the last English-language biography of the Greek politician was published in 1914. Maybe it’s time for a new one, he thinks.

Trevett’s first book was Apollodoros the Son of Pasion (Oxford University Press, 1992).